Projects to improve bicycling on three 5-mile segments of state highways in northwest Colorado could be among the first to get funding through the transportation portion of an economic stimulus package under consideration by Congress.
All three projects are intended to add 8-foot shoulders and climbing lanes that would "enhance recreational bicycling in this tourist-rich corridor," according to the priority list being circulated at the state Capitol this week.
Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Russ George said the state is in a good position to take advantage of federal stimulus dollars because so many "shovel-ready" projects are ready to go.
Phase one of a $13-million reconstruction for Rio Blanco Hill on SH 13 between Rifle and Meeker is on the so-called A list, which CDOT is preparing in anticipation of receiving about $422 million for highway construction in the stimulus package.
On the B list are similar projects for SH 131/Choke Cherry South, south of Steamboat Springs in Routt County ($6.8 million) and SH 139/Little Horse South near Rangely in Rio Blanco County ($8.5 million)
Also on the B list are projects to repave and add pedestrian ramps and bus turnouts for a two-mile stretch of U.S. 40 through downtown Steamboat ($10.9 million) and surface treatment for 15 miles of SH 30/141 northwest in Routt Count ($2.5 million).
No Moffat County projects are on the first two priority lists, which a CDOT spokeswoman said is subject to change.
"Some local governments are trying to accelerate their designs in order to qualify," Stacey Stegman said. "There's still a lot up in the air, and we don't know how much will go to local government."
George warned lawmakers not to count on the federal funds to bail out Colorado from a billion-dollar backlog of highway projects.
"The stimulus is just a one-time thing, and the amount will not exceed what I would have invested this year anyway," he said. "It's just filling a hole. We need $500 million a year just to maintain what we have and $1 billion more to expand to where the population is demanding it."
George told a joint meeting of the House and Senate transportation committees that Colorado still needs a new revenue stream for transportation infrastructure such as the one being promoted by Gov. Bill Ritter and the legislature's majority Democrats. It would impose about $250 million worth of new user fees on Colorado motorists.
George said CDOT has a $304 million shortfall in this year's budget that has grounded any future planning.
"We really didn't expect the General Fund dollars to disappear as fast as it did," he said. "Almost immediately in the middle of last year we quit issuing any new consulting contracts of any kind. That was the first place the private sector began to see what was happening."
The chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, said he and Rep. Joe Rice, D-Littleton, are hoping to introduce the controversial transportation funding plan by Friday and begin hearings next week.
The bill is being touted as a way to get people back to work and stimulate the economy.
"Time is of the essence," Gibbs said. "Everything is on the table and we are working closely with all the parties involved. We hope to have bipartisan support and we're really trying to take into account everyone's concerns."
The leading Republican in the Colorado Senate, Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, said he believes a compromise could be reached soon. He noted the Republicans already have suggested a plan to use equity in state-owned buildings as collateral for issuing so-called certificates of participation to repair and build roads.
"We would really serve this institution well if we got this one solved and moved on very quickly," Penry said. "There is good momentum now with brand new leadership and not the bitterness of days gone by. Let's get in and get it while the gettin's good."
Gibbs said a strong transportation system is critical to districts like his that are heavily dependent on tourism.
"I have nine ski resorts in my district and tourism is the centerpiece of our economy," he said. "If folks aren't able to head to our areas in a quick and efficient way, they are going to think twice about us and might go to Utah, California or Lake Tahoe instead."
As explained at the governor's news conference last week, the first phase of the Democrats' plan is based on a series of surcharges and fees that would raise about $250 million a year for road safety projects, focusing first on the 125 bridges throughout the state that CDOT has deemed deficient.
An annual road safety surcharge, based on the weight of a vehicle, would range from $16 for motorcycles to $39 for vehicles 16,000 pounds or more. An additional surcharge of from $13 to $29, also based on weight, would be used by a new statewide bridge enterprise for financing bonds.
Ritter said the plan would cost the average motorist an additional $4 a month.
Three area bridges are on the list of deficient bridges that don't meet state standards and may have load restrictions. They are on SH 13 over a draw at mile point 93 in Moffat County and two bridges on SH 64 near mile points 57 and 60 in Rio Blanco County.
House District 57 Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, said he still is learning about the Democrats' plan.
"There's a lot of information to gather and I don't know if I can give a really good answer right now," Baumgardner said when asked for his opinion. "I'm hearing a lot from my constituents, and their opinions are really split."
Baumgardner is working on his own bill aimed at putting more money into road projects in energy-impacted areas, using the first 10 percent of the money the state gets from federal mineral leases. His House Bill 1051 is scheduled for hearing Wednesday afternoon before the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee.